Historical Fiction: Back-to-School Reading for Grown-Ups | Wyatt’s World

If your readers are feeling just a bit nostalgic for school, with all the TV commercials of kids getting their first-day looks and new notebooks and pencils, suggest historical fiction. The genre is rife with excellent stories told by fine stylists and has the added benefit of teaching readers about a new time and place. This fall, authors pen trips back in time to Harpers Ferry, Depression-era Seattle, and to the imaginative world of Jane Austen’s Darcy and Elizabeth.

  • Longbourn by Jo Baker (Knopf). The servants of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice get their say in this rich and surprising melding of upstairs/downstairs life within the Bennet household. As both a love story and a brilliant mirror to Austen, it is a vibrant evocation of a place and time lost within the pages of another story.
  • Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford (Ballantine). Vividly set in Depression-era Seattle, Ford’s novel tracks the fate of William Eng, a young boy living in an orphanage who runs away to find the actress he believes to be his mother, Liu Song. Interweaving William and Liu’s stories, Ford crafts a multifaceted novel rich in period detail.
  • Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Little, Brown). Set in Iceland in 1829, Kent’s debut reimagines the real-life story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a woman accused of a horrifying murder and sent to a remote farm to await her fate. This a lush and lyrical story, deeply contextualized by archival documents.
  • My Notorious Life by Kate Manning (Scribner). Immersing readers in 19th-century New York City, Manning tells the sprawling life story of Axie Muldoon, a figure loosely based on a famous female midwife of that era. Muldoon fights for women’s rights—and in opposition to a society and press set against her—while at the same time navigating her own personal story.
  • The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (Riverhead). Through the narrative of 12-year-old Henry Shackleford, a slave living in the Kansas Territory, we learn the story of John Brown and Frederick Douglass during the lead up to the planned attack on Harpers Ferry, WV. Funny, observant, harrowing, and gleeful, McBride’s book offers readers a rollicking and iconoclastic take on the era.


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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net